Lianne La Havas at Koko gig review: a long overdue showcase that soothed the soul

 (Michal Augustini/ Rex)
(Michal Augustini/ Rex)

“I haven’t been out in a really long time,” Lianne La Havas laughed, a little overwhelmed, on the opening night of her sell-out KOKO residency.

Considering this was the south Londoner’s first headline show in the capital since the release of her eponymous LP, back in July 2020, it would have been easy to forgive any fumbled notes, forgotten lyrics or mid-song jitters. Last night, La Havas proved she requires no such special treatment, delivering a soul-soothing performance that further justifies her reputation as the artist’s artist of choice, beloved by legends like Stevie Wonder, Erykah Badu, Alicia Keys and Prince.

Indeed, it was the latter that La Havas was performing with the last time she graced the stage at KOKO, back in February 2014. If treading the same boards stirred memories of her late, great mentor, the 32-year-old kept them firmly to herself as she focused on giving her Ivor Novello-winning third LP the long-overdue showcase it so desperately deserves.

Of the 15 songs performed, 10 were taken from her self-titled record, brought to life by La Havas on guitar, with assistance from a keyboardist, a bassist, a drummer and two backing vocalists. Beginning in a flurry of handclaps and cascading guitar arpeggios, mellow set opener Sour Flower set the mood for a restorative evening, before ebbing into the sun-dappled jazz-pop of Read My Mind, which transfixed even the most garrulous of crowd members with its easy charm. Even more compelling was Radiohead-cover Weird Fishes, its rolling bass groove, powerful percussion and sighing harmonies the very antithesis of the current craze for anaemic acoustic interpretations.

With between-song chat kept to a minimum, La Havas’ impressive musicality remained the main draw throughout. It was never so brilliantly demonstrated as during the pared-back rendition of early single Forget. Finding La Havas flanked by her backing vocalists, the funk-flecked pop of the original was imbued with extra power via a skeletal arrangement of skilful, surf-guitar runs and tight three-part harmonies.

Boasting a velvety lower register, an upper range akin to spun gold, and a vibrato that makes listeners weak at the knees, La Havas’ voice remains amongst the most stunning in the business. Crucially, live she proved she possesses an unimpeachable mastery of dynamics and restraint too, qualities that are all too often overlooked in contemporary pop.

It was this perfect balance that brought much-loved single Bittersweet to new heights. And though ostensibly examining the end of relationship, the song’s message of rebirth found fresh meaning in the context of a comeback show. “No more hanging around,” La Havas resolved, as 1,500 fans rejoiced.